Alumni On The Move
Photo by Matt Hagen
Erin Shea ’07: "...this is what I was supposed to do"
Erin Shea is one of only 54 Equal Justice Works fellows in the nation – and the first from Seattle University School of Law in a decade. For her two-year fellowship, Shea is working at Columbia Legal Services in Seattle to establish a system of adequate court representation for Washington’s foster youth. Her goals include publishing and disseminating a foster youth rights handbook and working with stakeholders in the implementation of the Braam settlement – a historic settlement agreement reached in July 2004, creating a blueprint for reform of the child welfare system in Washington State.
While at the Law School, Erin served as President of the Public Interest Law Foundation and as an Article Editor with the Seattle Journal for Social Justice.
JG: Have you always known that you wanted to work with foster youth?
Erin: After graduating college, I got a job working with Burton Snowboards in the Chill Program. This nationwide program takes at-risk, foster, homeless youth, and kids living in group care and chemical dependency institutions snowboarding. In doing this I met some of the most amazing kids. I had never really known kids with significant mental health needs and behavioral needs, who lived round the calendar in institutions and group homes. When the snow melted and the program ended, I got a job in a group home, and I worked in an adolescent boys program. I was like a 22-year-old mother for 12-18 year-old boys. Definitely life-changing.
So when you came to law school was it your goal to focus on foster youth?
Erin: Yes. I still have the names and faces of the kids I worked with at the group home. These were kids that were not able to thrive in any foster care placement, so this was probably one of the more intense places for a foster child to live. I had applications ready to go for my MSW, but through a self-reflection process I realized I didn’t want to follow the policies that I already thought weren’t working; I wanted to change them. I still have one picture on my desk of one of the kids I worked with, one of my little buddies, who is probably 19 now. I have very vivid memories of what their lives were like, and I knew this is what I was supposed to do.
Do you think there will be a time when we will no longer need to change the policy?
Erin: Society continues to evolve, and what was once a good policy 40 years ago is no longer a good policy today. There are some policies from 40 years ago that we’ve abandoned that sound like pretty good policies now. So I think that a lot of policy is made in response to emergencies and tragedies, which is important, but a lot of times laws are passed in moments of fervor and with a need to react, and long-term who knows if it is really the best policy. The unintended consequences of a quickly enacted law make me nervous.
The work that you’re doing is pretty intense for someone only out of school for 10 months.
Erin: I think I am extremely fortunate. It was not necessarily one thing that led to my being an Equal Justice Works Fellow at Columbia Legal Services. There were a number of forces at work, and it really started when I met the deputy director of Columbia while I was president of PILF. They had this fellowship position that they wanted to fill. Fellowship meaning, “We would like this work to get done, but we don’t have the money to do it.” Being an EJW Fellow is a very special thing, and there was significant support from the law school, Columbia, and EJW to make this happen.
How is your transition from being a student to lobbying the legislature?
Erin: I testified twice this legislative session. It’s just as intimidating as any public speaking engagement, except for maybe a little more in that these people have no clue who I am. I am a brand new attorney, and what do I know? At least that’s what I am thinking. Here are the legislators who are used to hearing from the same child welfare experts, and I am the new girl. I was just waiting for them to ask me terrifying questions. But it went really well, and it was actually quite fun. I enjoyed it! I think that our legal writing process here, the oral advocacy, definitely helped.
So, Legal Writing was helpful? What was your favorite class in law school?
Erin: I actually loved Legal Writing (1 & 2), and it was mostly because of the professor, Mimi Samuel. She gave so much energy to a subject that intimidates students, not only because it is a lot of work, but also because they know it is at the core of a legal career. You can definitely psych yourself out in that class. It is a crucial skill to learn. The class was challenging, some of it was fun, and it was a lot of work. Other than doing a clinic, that was the most hands-on experience, what being a lawyer would be like.
Outside of Legal Writing, shockingly, I loved Business Entities. It was the one class I knew I had to take but had zero interest in. I had to know how corporations function. I had already been a counselor licensed by the state. I worked in a non-profit agency. I had also worked for the University of Washington at one point. So I worked in a large educational institution. I had to know how everything from the formation of boards of directors to how by-laws are created. An essential subject for any lawyer to understand is how corporations interact with society. And Professor Powell was able to completely humanize what I always envisioned as a very cold, legal subject. He went out of his way to be available to students, and, again, this was a subject I had zero interest in but walked out of it thinking, “that is fascinating…”
This law school has a strong social justice mission: how did that mission foster your experience here and help on your career path?
Erin: Prior to law school I worked in group-homes and knew many social workers and counselors. When I said I wanted to go to law school to influence a certain community, I was asked, “Well, what does that mean?” Participating in organizations like PILF and speaking with professors broke down how public interest law works. I didn’t know what civil legal aid was. As a kid, when I thought of lawyers, it was lawyers who worked for firms or in divorce court. I had a very limited perspective about what a lawyer did. It wasn’t until something like PILF where I learned that there are people who work with kids on their educational needs. And that there are these wrap-around services that are civil. A lot of organizations dissect how you can use your legal degree in a way that is non-traditional. And with all the student organizations and places like the Center for Professional Development, you have great resources for learning how to use your law degree in legal services. I don’t think I would have had the same experience at any other school.
For people that want to enter the more traditional legal world, they at least know that there is that mission statement, and that there are professors who are committed to getting the students involved in organizations that reach out to minority communities, disenfranchised felons; you can find someone here who wants to tap into an underserved population that doesn’t have access to the justice system. So if you were to graduate from here and don’t have even a twinge of appreciation for those access to justice issues that are out there and the people needing help, I’d be surprised.
Erin’s Fellowship runs for two years, and the long-term goals of her project are to establish a system of adequate court representation for all Washington’s foster youth; facilitate full participation of stakeholders in all geographic regions of the state in the foster care reform process; and publish and disseminate a foster youth rights handbook.